From Expressways to Boulevards

Converting Highways, Rethinking Cities

20 December 2021ContactPaul Lecroart

All over the world, cities and regions are confronted with the ambiguous heritage of extensive networks of highways and their fragmented urban landscapes. Limited-access expressways still play an important role in moving people and goods within metropolitan areas, but they may not be the most efficient and sustainable way to do the job.

Highways with segregated interchanges create physical barriers and take-up great chunks of precious urban and suburban land that could have other uses; they tend to limit pedestrian and bike movement, and sever access to waterfronts and nature. The high volumes of traffic these highways support generate noise, dust and air pollution, raising health and social justice issues for local communities. By providing seemingly easy access for cars and heavy-goods vehicles, extensive highways networks encourage car-centric lifestyles, urban sprawl, mono-functional uses of space which in the end leads to more traffic and congestion.

Social and economic patterns are changing with growing aspirations for the vibrancy of city life and car-free living in denser, mix-use neighbourhoods served by multi-use and greener public spaces, in close contact with nature. Cities and metropolitan regions respond to these trends by redeveloping former industrial and car-oriented city fringes for more intensive land-uses, with the support of new metro, tramway or express bus lines. These projects are increasingly becoming catalysts for green development strategies, sustainable urban mobility programmes and climate-neutral policies.

The Covid crisis shows a rapid change in mobility, housing, working and leisure patterns, opening a window of opportunity to reset our urban development and transport models. Converting urban highways’ into green and active city boulevards could be a powerful way of making cities-regions both climate-neutral environments and desirable places to live.

Helsinki. Vision of a City Boulevard © City of Helsinki/WSP 

Oslo. View of a future Østre Aker Boulevard © City of Oslo/De Gayardon Bureau

Transforming Highways in Europe

Three European networks are currently collaborating in a joint-learning platform to understand how transforming highways can help cities and regions reach their climate-friendly, sustainable urban development and mobility goals, while working to become more livable, socially inclusive and economically attractive: 

  • METREX, the Network of European Metropolitan Regions & Areas, From Roads to Streets Expert Group (lead Institut Paris Region)
  • EUROCITIES, Urban Regeneration in the City Fringe Working Group (lead City of Oslo)
  • URBACT RiConnect Action Planning Programme (lead Barcelona Metropolitan Area)

In 2020-2021, research has focused on four experiences, providing interesting insights and takeaways:

  • Helsinki’s City Boulevard Strategy and Projects (download below)
  • Oslo’s City Fringe Regeneration/Hovinbyen and Østre Aker Vei Projects (download below)
  • Lyon’s M6/M7 Highway Corridor Transformation (download below)
  • Brussels’ Delta-Herrmann-Debroux Boulevard Project (due to published in Feb. 2022)

North American and Asian case can be downloaded below either in French or in English (New York and Montreal only). Other European highway-to-boulevard experiences are currently being documented within the help of participating cities or regions, including Barcelona (ES), Birmingham (UK), Gothenburg (SE), Prague (CZ), Porto (PO), and Warsaw (PL). 

Over twenty European cities and regions are now taking part in the From Roads to Streets or expressway-to-boulevard learning platform, with the support of international experts, through online workshops (including a Helsinki-Barcelona workshop and four joint events), digital seminars (including The Future Design of Streets seminar) and physical meetings. 

An international workshop about the future of the Rhône river banks highway in Lyon was held in August 2021 with a joint UrbaLyon-METREX-EUROCITIES-URBACT event with elected officials in October (see a selection of meeting's material below). The next joint workshop about Brussels’ highway-to-boulevard and transformation is planned to take place at the end of March 2022. 

Work is also being initiated by with the three-networks platform to understand how EU could help cities and regions to deliver combined urban regeneration and mobility infrastructure transformation strategies.

August 2021 International Workshop Studio in Urbalyon: fresh ideas to redesign the Rhône river banks and bridges in Lyon.

The METREX-EUROCITIES-URBACT From Roads to Streets learning platform aims at rethinking the future of highways and cities together.

The METREX "From Roads to Streets" joint learning platform

In March 2020, METREX, the Network of European Metropolitan Regions and Areas, launched “From Roads to Streets”, an expert group to serve as a platform for the exchange of knowledge and experience on the conversion of urban highways into city streets or boulevards (places to move, to stay, to live, and to work in), as a key measure to transform metropolitan cities and regions. L’Institut Paris Region is the lead partner.

This METREX group works in close cooperation and support of the EUROCITIES “Urban Regeneration in the City Fringe” working group created in April 2020 with eight participating cities: Amsterdam, Brussels, Düsseldorf, Lyon, Prag, Vilnius, Göteborg, with Oslo as the lead partner. This group works on the conditions and methods for transforming urban fringes in three directions: overcoming highway barriers, creating quality public spaces, and managing radical land-use mix.

Both METREX and EUROCITIES groups collaborate with the URBACT III "RiConnect" action planning network, which consists of eight metropolitan and transport authorities: Porto Metropolitan Area, Gdansk-Gdynia-Sopot Region, Krakow Region, Thessaloniki Region, Amsterdam Regional Transport Authority, Grand Paris Métropole, Transport for Greater Manchester, with Barcelona Metropolitan Area (AMB) as the lead partner. RiConnect is about rethinking mobility infrastructure in combination with metropolitan and local planning, in order to reconnect people, neighbourhoods, cities, and natural spaces. 

In 2020, the three networks joined forces to build up knowledge and expertise on these complex issues, with the aim to strengthen strategic and creative planning capacities within each city and region, including the Paris Region. The joint reflection of the networks also aims at raising awareness of EU and national levels on the social and environmental impacts of car-oriented infrastructure policies, with the need to shift funding streams towards converting urban expressways into green boulevards as a pathway towards compact, carbon neutral, resilient, and socially-sustainable city-regions. Some material presented in the course of the 2020 METREX expert group meetings can be found below.

Work will continue in 2021-2022 through online and physical meetings, hands-on workshops, peer-to-peer-reviews, seminars and (hopefully) site visits, bringing together experts and practitioners from different horizons.
Other experiences will be added to the joint learning platform, including potentially Barcelona, Birmingham, Göteborg, Nantes, Paris, Porto, and Warsaw. A final summary report, supported by a wide range of situations, strategies and projects, will focus on the takeaways and learnings for the future of city-regions. A common final conference should take place in 2023.

Learning from international experience

In the last decades, many cities –including Portland, New York, or Seoul– successfully removed or transformed stretches of urban highways, replacing them with multi-use boulevards lined with mixed-use new developments, or new linear parks. In order to understand the rationale, impacts and conditions for success, L'Institut Paris Region initiated in 2010 a long-term research programme on Metropolitan Avenues. The purpose was to inform ongoing projects and reflections in the Paris Region. As part of the programme, L’Institut examined some twenty highway-to-boulevard experiences on three continents (America, Asia and Europe). Of these, nine cases were studied in depth on-site, with their reports published first in French between 2012 and 2016.

The most significative result from this research is that these strategic metropolitan projects are complex and conflictual, but have long-term positive impacts on traffic and mobility, city regeneration, and the quality of the urban environment, often far beyond the project boundaries (see article: Reinventing Cities: From Urban Highway to Living Space - Urban Design issue 147). 

This research has influenced projects in France, including the Paris Region Masterplan (2013), the Paris Seine Banks pedestrianisation (2016), as well as the ongoing reflections on the future of the Paris Périphérique and the region’s highways –with the International Competition on the Future of Grand Paris’s Highways as a first step in 2018.

Paul Lecroart

Paul Lecroart is a Senior Urbanist for the Paris Metropolitan Region Planning Agency, advising regional & city authorities on strategic planning and transformative projects, both in France and internationally. Paul currently steers the Metropolitan Avenues programme on highway transformation in the Grand Paris and chairs the METREX ‘From Roads to Streets’ Expert Group. He has been a member of the International Advisory Board for the 4th New York Regional Plan as well as a Coordinator for Metropolis, the global network of cities. He teaches strategic and tactical planning at Sciences Po Urban School, Paris, and has contributed to many books, films and research publications, including ‘Cities Change the Word’ published in December 2019.


Special thanks to Henk Bouwman, and Stephan Gallagher (METREX), Pernille Grimeland Røsvik, and Jørn Roar-Moe (Oslo/EUROCITIES), Niklas Aalto-Setälä (Helsinki), Joan Caba Roset (Barcelona/URBACT), Juan Castro, Sébastien Rolland, and Olivier Roussel (Lyon), Milene Deneubourg (Brussels), and all network participants for their contribution to this work.

Other Resources

Reinventing Cities: From Urban Highway to Living Space - Urban Design issue 147

Storymap: Ideas competition for Barcelona

This page is associated with following categories :
International | Mobility | Urban planning